As the fall semester wears on against the backdrop of Covid-19, many college faculty are increasingly skeptical about the changing role of technology in the classroom.
Tools that use artificial intelligence to streamline processes like scoring quizzes or reviewing grammar were already on the upswing before the pandemic. These technologies do an effective job of automating some of the processes that used to be an inextricable part of the teaching experience. Now, in a new era of remote learning, some research suggests that technology is more popular than ever.
As the leader of an organization focused on supporting community colleges, I’ve seen the impact of this shift firsthand. For many instructors, the rise of technology tools in the classroom during the pandemic has resurfaced longstanding concerns about what role those tools should play in the learning experience. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, those concerns manifest as a fear of being replaced by robots (not likely). But there are more reasonable concerns as well—particularly given the increasing effectiveness of artificial intelligence in classroom settings.
These concerns often stem from a feeling that technology is doing the jobs that are supposed to be done by faculty members themselves. That’s been a consistent refrain in my conversations with community college instructors. There’s a pervasive feeling that the “busy work” of teaching is part of their duty to their students. It’s almost as if that busy work – numerical scoring, correcting grammar – is the “broccoli” that instructors have to swallow before they can get to “dessert” (e.g., the more meaningful, substantive, personal work of teaching).
That seems to be the reason that, as the fall semester continues, faculty have been raising questions about the role of technology in the years to come. Will ubiquitous video lectures, AI-based grading tools, or platforms that provide students with real-time writing feedback make traditional teaching obsolete?
The answer, as it turns out, is yes. And that’s a good thing—because our collective opinion about what constitutes “traditional teaching” is overdue for an overhaul.
In too many classrooms across the country – especially community college classrooms – the job of the instructor has become one focused on logistics. At a time of increasing course sizes and shrinking budgets, the bulk of many faculty members’ jobs focuses on the rote delivery of content, the performance of administrative tasks, or the minutiae of grammar correction and answering similar questions over and over again. These are the parts of teaching most likely to be replaced by technology. They’re also the parts that get in the way of what teaching should be.
Instead of worrying about technology’s impact on the classroom, can we use technology as a catalyst to reimagine what instruction should look like altogether? Instead of fearing what we might lose due to technology, can we also consider the opportunities we are giving up by doing everything manually?
Imagine a classroom in which instructors have all the time they need for direct engagement with students, unburdened by the rote aspects of instruction that can steal so much time and energy. It’s a place where instructors are able to consider and experiment with a much wider range of assignments, without being constrained by the time it might take to grade them. Students in this classroom receive more real-time feedback on skills like grammar and citation. Professors and instructors can focus on deep and substantive feedback, supported by technology that enables students to engage more fully in their learning by guiding them through the basics of writing and critical thinking.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tyra Gross, who teaches at Xavier University of Louisiana and experienced this shift firsthand. When Tyra first started using a discussion tool called Packback for her Nutrition & Health course, she was more skeptical than anything else: how could artificial intelligence possibly help improve something as human as conversation? But, as she put it, “the AI actually encouraged students to start moderating their own contributions, and that freed up time for me to engage on deeper and more substantive work.” She also noted that during the pandemic, the inquiry-based approach to discussion helped students engage with the content and with one another in safe ways, and students have consistently mentioned Packback in end-of-semester evaluations as a tool to improve their writing skills.
Professor Gross’s experience can be illustrative for all of us. Rather than supplanting faculty members, we should think of technology as a tool to facilitate the next wave of evolution in the teaching profession—one that is better for the student, and creates opportunities for even deeper and more meaningful connections between instructors and their classes. Instructors will always be able to do things that no algorithm can—like provide hands-on support, care, guidance, and coaching. Instead of holding on to the menial tasks that “feel like” they need to be part of teaching, why not give faculty members the time and space to do the job for which they are uniquely suited?
It’s important to note that change of any kind is scary. For many instructors, moving from a lecturer to a facilitator of discussion will not always be comfortable. It will take time, and investment in professional development that can help instructors better understand how to use technology and mitigate fear and skepticism. But as institutional leaders, we must remember that our goal isn’t to maintain the status quo. It’s to explore how we can make tomorrow’s college classroom more effective, inclusive, and student-centered than today’s. If technology can help us do that, we should embrace it with open arms.
Rufus Glasper is President and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College.